By Gustav Niebuhr
How many people remember the photographs of British men in Bradford, England, burning a copy of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses? It’s been nearly 22 years since that event–one which the crowd’s rage and destructiveness baffled so many people in western nations and triggered such outrage among those nations’ intellectuals. For months thereafter, we heard that Muslims in Britain and South Asia felt deeply insulted by a writer’s ridiculing the basics of their faith. But so much reaction–including death threats against the writer and his publisher–over insults to a religion in a book? To the secularized West, it made no sense. Writers, after all, write to move us, to touch us emotionally.
These days, an explosive reaction in response to a perceived religious insult seems much easier to comprehend. And that shows how different our era is from January 1989. Back then, the Berlin Wall still stood and people continued to talk about the Cold War.
Now, we have General David Petraeus, America’s best-known and best-respected military man, essentially warning the pastor of a tiny Gainesville, Fla., congregation not to burn a book because, Petraeus says, if the pastor does, that action will have international repercussions, harming American foreign policy in South Asia and putting the lives of American troops there at risk.
The book, of course, is the Qu’ran, as central to the faith of 1 billion-plus Muslims as Jesus is to one billion-plus Christians.
But we have other dynamics at work here: In the United States, short of causing arson, you can burn a book, just as you can America’s most sacred symbol, the U.S. flag. It’s Constitutionally guaranteed. Free speech.
The moral question here is, how do we handle our freedom, which permits us appalling, anti-social acts?
As an American who deeply believes in free speech, I regard burning a book as a nearly unspeakably terrible thing. It is an assault on knowledge, and the societal value of allowing people to read and decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning to them. Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom.
What’s more, you replicate images of a political brutality–book burnings in Germany in the 1930s–that will haunt our planet for generations to come.
In purely secular terms, the Qu’ran has a 1,400-year history. Don’t such texts, which have earned such remarkable places in human civilization, deserve respect for that very status? And if such a book does not, then what human product does?